Unions angered by secret-ballot election proposal

The Saskatchewan Party government outlined sweeping changes to labour legislation Wednesday, tabling two bills that one union leader quickly denounced as "the worst legislation for workers in the country."

But the new government said its essential services legislation -- a first for the province -- coupled with amendments to the existing Trade Union Act will make labour rules "fair and balanced." "I think they are going to ensure that we have a competitive labour legislative environment," Premier Brad Wall told reporters.

Bill 6, proposing changes to the Trade Union Act, would require 45 per cent support in order to proceed with an application of certification or decertification of a union, instead of 25 per cent.

There would also be mandatory secret ballot votes for certification or decertification and the employer's ability to communicate with employees would be broadened, among other changes.

Bill 5, the essential services legislation, would see the work of certain public sector employees deemed essential, preventing those workers from being off the job during a labour disruption. The bill covers government, Crown corporations, health employers and also post-secondary institutions and municipalities. It describes essential services as those that are necessary to prevent danger to life, health or safety; the destruction or serious deterioration of machinery, equipment or premises; serious environmental damage; and disruption of the courts.

Affected unions and employers would need to start negotiating essential services agreements at least 90 days before a collective agreement was to expire, outlining what is essential and what employees must remain on the job.

If there is no agreement before a work stoppage, the employer would give the union a list of services and workers that it deemed essential. The union could appeal to the Labour Relations Board to argue that fewer employees are needed to continue the essential service, and a ruling would be made within 14 days.

Saskatchewan Federation of Labour President Larry Hubich said his cursory first look at bills left him feeling that it is the "worst legislation for workers in the country" and blasted the government for failing to consult with any of those who will be impacted.

"(The legislation) isn't competitive by any stretch of the imagination. It is the bottom of the barrel," Hubich said.

"I have a group of lawyers working right now to determine whether or not there are constitutional challenges under the Charter with respect to these two pieces of legislation."

However, Advanced Education, Employment and Labour Minister Rob Norris argued that Bills 5 and 6 are not out of step with the rest of Canada and said he's willing to listen to ideas as the bills wind their way through the legislative process in the coming months.

"As I've looked at these pieces of legislation -- one balancing the rights of workers, the rights of unions with public safety, the other really moving towards (a) fair and balanced labour environment with an emphasis on democratic workplaces -- they're actually very moderate bills," Norris said.

A Saskatchewan representative with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, Marilyn Braun-Pollon, was among those in the business community who cheered the changes, particularly in respect to the Trade Union Act.

"The scales have been tipped for far too long in favour of unions," she said.

However, NDP leader Lorne Calvert -- who acknowledged he had yet to study the bills tabled Wednesday afternoon -- charged that the Sask. Party had "lied to the people of Saskatchewan." Calvert referenced comments some of the Sask. Party MLAs made over the last year about essential services, when they said legislation would not necessarily be required.

"They went out and misled the people of Saskatchewan, and here the proof is today," said Calvert, holding a copy of Bill 5. "I've never seen such a blatant lie delivered before an election."

The Sask. Party's election platform didn't mention essential services legislation, but rather a pledge that a Sask. Party government would work with public-sector unions to ensure essential services are in place in a labour disruption.


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